Weekend Beats: Down on the Norfside

Several times I’ve written here about A$AP Rocky’s 2011 mixtape Live. Love. A$AP, a late-capitalist gem. The entire text is eminently bumpable, but my favorite tracks remain those produced by Clams Casino, who recently did work on my favorite album of 2015, Vince Staples’s double-disc Summertime ’06.

cover of Vince Staples - Summertime 06

Double EPs are risky. There are vast masterpieces like Exile on Main St., but often such albums are at least a little bloated and could be slimmed (e.g., Wilco’s Being There). Staples pulls it off, though. Summertime ’06 doesn’t have any obvious radio-ready singles–no bangers, no anthems, no easy hooks. This isn’t Drake. A fundamentally grimmer album than what usually runs up the Billboard charts, it’s more like Enter the Wu-Tang or Hell Hath No Fury.

That does not mean the songs won’t snag in your cortex. Staples’s writing is a memorably lyrical blend of braggadocio and fear; meditation and narrative; pride in Long Beach, California, and the urge toward other worlds. One of the tracks Clams Casino produced is “Norf Norf,” which sounds like Aphex Twin spliced with the mid-2000s Neptunes aesthetic (and Bjork and Viktor Vaughn), then drenched in THC and cough syrup.

The track is not traditionally catchy. It makes the listener do some work first. Staples’s tense bluster is gorgeous but taxing, because his subject matter is so grim, while the production is groggy and nightmarish. And yet there is, I bet, a decent chance you will keep thinking about “Norf Norf” after you hear it once. Sit alone with it for a few minutes.

Weekend Beats: Wassup

Ezra Pound famously said that poetry is news that stays news. A rejoinder would be, “Well, at least some does.” But the remark has a ring to it.

Anyway, a few years ago, urbane Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who subsequently blew the fuck up, released the space-news classic LIVE LOVE A$AP, and the tasteful person’s iTunes roster was never the same again. The mixtape has a deep bench of songs, unlike most mixtapes, and it holds up well.

A favorite of ours is the fourth track, “Wassup.” Its magnificently cocky, couplet-based patter swaggers across a narcotic, purple, tidal beat by the brilliant but unfortunately named producer Clams Casino, and the YouTube video should have 2.3 billion views, not just 2.3 million (as of this publication). Beyond its formal elegance and existential cool–its aesthetic attitude, in place of a moral or philosophical orientation–the song has no depth, which is something Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that art should have as little as possible to do with morals or intellectualizing, would smile at. “Wassup” slithers lazily but somehow yanks.

We ain’t talking ’bout no money, we ain’t talkin’ bout no cars. We are just a humble arts and culture blog, y’all. Enjoy the weekend, enjoy all the weekends.

Weekend Beats: Run the Jewels, “Sea Legs” (2014)

El-P has been around for what seems like forever. The man is 39. He’s been making great music for two decades. He’s still shiny. Listen up now, cuz right now he and the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike constitute Run the Jewels, a deranged and brilliant duo presently enjoying some legit commercial success.

If you are in your thirties and collected Def Jux label stuff in your college years, this will make you especially happy. In the late 1990s, he was part of Company Flow, which dropped the stone classic Funcrusher Plus (1997), and in 2002 hereleased Fantastic Damage, an album that will appeal to you if you run or pursue any other sort of repetitive, meditative athletic activity. A cold sliver of bass-whacked brilliance, people with souls have been jumping to it for over a decade.

Listen to that taut, belligerent, compelling sludge!

The coolest track on the Run the Jewels album is its title track, the instrumental version of which was used for one of the past few years’ coolest sports commercials. But we are a cool blog with compelling knowledge, not like the other blogs, so we’ll offer up one of the other choice cuts. It is called “Sea Legs.”

That term–sea legs–has been around for centuries now. There is yet continuity in the world. Happy weekends. Enjoy yourselves.

Los Angeles Country: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs”

Country music has a split heritage: rural Protestantism on the one hand, hillbilly hedonism on the other. All those mean little nondenominational churches in the South can’t change the fact that music is great, partying is fun, and getting drunk is restorative and beneficial until it becomes terrible. Sin and forbearance and all that—it’s how you get George Jones’s music and George Jones’s life. And in its purest form, the genre is workers’ music, poor man’s music, jams out of coal hollers and county highways, every song shadowed by poverty and boring, ordinary disappointment.

Like many cultural phenomena, country flourished when it spread beyond its geographical roots, like how the Brits invented the Anglophone novel but Americans perfected it (1). When the Dust Bowl and then World War II drew poor whites (primarily Appalachians and the Okies) out west, country music got California all over it. Despite its financial capital and production heft, Nashville doesn’t have shit on Bakersfield. In turn, Bakersfield needed Los Angeles, the urban hub just over the mountains through which country’s best tendencies were distributed. When the genius who is the subject of today’s post went to Nashville at the dawn of the Reagan era, saw a bunch of New South rhinestone schlock, said “Fuck it,” and moved out west, he was copying dudes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, pursuing his own version of the n’er-do-well proto-punk aesthetic that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (two artists who never really fit in the South even though they were Southern boys, as JC emphasized by stomping out the floor lights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965) had articulated.

Dwight Yoakam settled in LA in the 1980s, developing his style in shitty punk clubs and similar dives, and dropping his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., toward the dismal end of the Reagan years (1986). One of the best country debuts ever? Survey says YES. It’s the creation of an Appalachian transplant who liked tight jeans as much as he dug Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Creedence, AOR pop singles, and the Carter Family. Country music? Grimy at heart. (See above.) Los Angeles? Grimy at heart and in all the other ways.

But he wasn’t some subaltern master that America didn’t ever appreciate: Yoakam was huge in the late 1980s and 1990s, selling out stadiums and hogging the airwaves. Indeed, he was a Boyd family staple in our blue Ford Ranger. His videos dominated the limited space MTV gave to country artists, and while I wouldn’t call them cool (some of them are downright terrible), compared to what Garth Brooks and his headset were subjecting America to, Yoakam’s grunge-hunk look is tight enough to redeem all but the worst media rollouts (2). In general, these pleasant visual adjuncts underscore his ability to write fantastic pop songs (3), much like his physical doppelganger and stylistic cousin Tom Petty.

His first five albums did serious Billboard-chart damage, and they are all great, but the one I keep bumpin’ in my jalopy is Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. My own dear favorite track is “South of Cincinnati,” but the title-ish song “Guitars, Cadillacs” offers a better idea of what makes Yoakam’s best work so fascinating and inventive. The song is fun with a sad edge. In other words, it is like the better parties you’ve been to lately. Have a weekend, LA and beyond.

NOTES
1) Unfortunately it also works the other way around, as when white people grow dreadlocks.
2) For a demonstration of how standards of taste and style are historically contingent, watch the video for Yoakam’s enormous (and still awesome) hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Most of it is perfectly adequate cable-TV fare, but there’s a shot around 1:40 that is titanically, hilariously awful; I need someone to make me a GIF of it. The lady’s hair-toss!
3) The most beautiful musicians can make accessible music, even pop music, if they want to. Examples: Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Chopin’s piano bits, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Brian Wilson, Jay Z. Something is missing if an artist’s work is always difficult, just like if it were constantly enjoyable only on an unreflective, immediate level. High art isn’t continually highbrow. Jane Eyre exemplifies this, as do the deft, sad lyrics below, which arrive near the end of “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” one of DY’s singles from If There Was a Way [sic]:

If a tear should fall,
If I should whisper her name
To some stranger I’m holding
While we’re dancin to an old Buck Owens song,
I know she won’t mind
She won’t even know–
She’ll be dancing with a memory, crying teardrops of her own.

Weekend Beats: Claudine’s Back in Jail Again

We’ve written before about the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls (1978), an album that is both a dirtbag disco joint and a Bakersfield country classic. Beauty is grime, and grime beauty, that’s all we know. The whole performance raises questions. Among them: Can a total English-to-American conversion happen to someone, or even to an entire band? Well, can it?

The American impulse entails (but doesn’t often admit the coexistence of) exultation and failure, success and loss, clarity and muck, all of it in richly conflicted individual versions (we still call them citizens), which makes sense, given our roots in Calvinism and the slave trade, in both of which you’re either a blessed success or close to a deserved, preordained death. If we’re talking poetry, this is why Emily Dickinson, not Walt Whitman, is the Big Bang of modern American poetry (OK, OK, they split 60/40), because Whitman, for all his genius, only half-compromised in later, post-Civil War poems with the darkness.

Anyway, the Stones released their posh two-disc Deluxe Edition of Some Girls a while back, and it’s just great. The second disc emphasizes country-fried songs that didn’t make the final cut, including the scuffling, speedy track we’ve got here, “Claudine.”

The original public version has the masterpieces that became hits: “Some Girls,” “Beast of Burden,” “Miss You” (some Puerto Rican girls that’s just dyyyyin to meet-cha), “Shattered” (after which the 1980s’ best pop songs could happen). But the restored cuts on Disc 2 are almost as fantastic, because their pose is more artfully ragged. If you like that kind of setup. It gets grimy down there, son. The American impulse needs plenty of explaining, and sometimes English visitors and settlers can clarify things: Dusty Springfield, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, the Men in Blazers, Aldous Huxley (who for better or worse nurtured Southern California’s mystical inclinations), Thom Gunn (more on him on this blog soon), Steve McQueen the director, Thomas Paine, Led Zeppelin.

Et cetera. Enjoy the weekend, y’all.

Weekend Beats: Kool Keith on “Drugs”

I wish I had a cooler origin story for my appreciation of Kool Keith, but to be honest I discovered him on the Office Space soundtrack. Don’t judge—it was 1999 and I was 17. Because I couldn’t find a free Web clip of wherever in the film “Get Off My Elevator,” with its mangy, peristaltic beat and pop-culture garbageman-poet lyrics, gets played, here is another scene from Mike Judge’s Clinton-era masterwork:

Later, when I got to college and, still a corny young white man (just like Michael Bolton above), began working at the school’s radio station (WCWM represent), people who actually knew about hip hop introduced me to gold like the Ultramagnetic MCs, the group Keith rapped with from the late 1980s till the mid 1990s, and Spankmaster, an album he dropped in 2001. That the latter cracked the Billboard Top 50 for rap albums (#48) in the early 2000s, or any era in which human beings have had the ability to record music, is shocking. You may remember Ja Rule and Crazy Town from the early aughts.

My favorite track on Spankmaster is “Drugs,” a profane, batshit tall tale of Keith’s supposed assignations with various narc-addled celebrities. In an odd way, though, the text controls itself. Sort of. Its ragout of cultural allusions and strange hypothetical scenarios is held within demanding rhyme and accent schemes. The beat is an eerie, growling, fenced-in space for the lyrics to roughhouse. It is pricked with empty-theater piano taps. It’s like a scene from Under the Volcano—simultaneously goofy and horrible. A sample:

Packed up my bag and met Darryl Strawberry in the mall
I told James Brown, “Stop smoking angel-dust in the piss stall”
He wanted to go up to the Olive Garden and start a restaurant brawl
Mary J. Blige, my son don’t accept them type of phone calls!

If you want to do a Harold Bloom-style tree of influence, then Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Tyler, the Creator (all very different MCs) aren’t possible without Kool Keith.

You could also have some dark fun imagining an updated roll call of celebrity drug disasters: Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pimp C, Heath Ledger, Mitch Hedberg, Whitney Houston (still living when KK recorded this track, which mentions her and Bobby Brown). All men must die and all that.

Oh, also: the cover. Aesthetically, Spankmaster‘s packaging alludes to Eighties porno and Seventies blaxsploitation films (but mainly porno), and its ideological, uh, thrust amounts to a reeling parody of rap’s, uh, problematic sexual politics. That said, Keith does fervently endorse female backsides, which some people find quite fetching but which might not be universally palatable as presented here, KK’s prophylactic, partial irony notwithstanding. You can’t spell “Trigger Warning” without a T, a G, and an R.

To put it another way, there is a lady’s covered (but only just!) butt on the YouTube link, and no, there aren’t other freely accessible links without that tailfeather. But it is a remarkably un-erotic image anyway.

Good luck not cracking up six or seven times while you bump this. There’s a new kind of hero in the streets. Have a safe and fulfilling weekend, y’all.

Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.

Big Weekend Beats: Tom Waits is “Big in Japan”

Big things poppin’ over the weekend, y’all, but for now here is a song, “Big in Japan,” from one of my favorite Tom Waits albums, Mule Variations (1999). Just an awesome basket of songs. I’ve become a bigger fan of Waits’s albums from the 1980s, but this one introduced me to his music in high school. Thanks, 120 Minutes.

Perhaps the title nods to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Glenn Gould’s version of those. Probably, right?  Dunno. I’m not going to Google it. I’m going to pretend that these are still the pristine pre-Internet years, the years when print ruled, and just send you over to YouTube:

I love me a text with rhetorical patterns, even obsessive ones. Have a good weekend.